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Dispatches from the present


The Last Leaf


Last month I googled the distance between my house in Amman and Gaza City. It’s 90.4 miles. Over the last month, the Gaza Strip has seemed both incredibly close and hopelessly out of reach.

There is probably no Arab country that is more tied to Palestine, geographically, historically and socially, than Jordan. More than two million registered Palestinian refugees live here; the first wave came in 1948, settling in camps that would become whole new neighborhoods in Amman. East Jerusalem and the West Bank were under Jordanian control from 1948 until the 1967 war. By most estimates, over half the country’s population is of Palestinian origin. West of Amman, along the Jordan River Valley, Jordan has a long border with the occupied West Bank, which Israel has kept largely closed since October 7th.

I found out about the Hamas attacks minutes before they began appearing in the news, when a friend’s brother called anxiously from Ramallah. The realization was immediate here that the attack—even before we all learned what exactly it had entailed—would have terrible consequences for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. My friend’s brother has been agonizing ever since over whether to leave Ramallah with his family, but has so far remained due to his fear that we are on the brink of a second Nakba—the “catastrophe” of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, in which Palestinians fled their homes and were never allowed to return. It was in 1948 that the Gaza Strip was created; most of its residents are refugees from surrounding villages that were razed to the ground.

Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip has been so devastating, its support among Western governments so overwhelming, that all anyone can focus on here are the horrors that continue to unfold, without a respite in sight, every day in Gaza. The possibility of empathy for the victims of October 7th has been swept away by the scale and violence of Israel’s response, which has resulted in the deaths of more than eleven thousand Gazans so far, many of them children. The atrocities committed during the attacks were not, as far as I can tell, much covered in the Arab media; they are ignored or doubted or juxtaposed to ones committed against Palestinians. No one I’ve spoken to condones killing civilians or kidnapping children; but most view Hamas’s violence as a reaction to a long history of Israeli violence and dispossession, of injustices accrued over the past 75 years, of the unconscionable deprivations of life in the Gaza Strip.

A columnist in a local magazine argued that the war on Gaza is a turning point as significant as the 1967 war, causing Arab people to reevaluate their history and political commitments: “I heard many words from friends, comrades and people I did not know that went something like: ‘I am certain that I have never seen things more clearly than I do at this time.’” What people see here are Western double standards, the powerlessness of Arab governments, the uselessness of international laws and institutions; and the complete, open disregard for Palestinian life, which will not be forgotten.

As the starving and bombing of Gaza’s captive population has gone on and on, Amman has been holding its breath, expelling it now and then in marches and demonstrations, which, alongside the visits of foreign dignitaries, paralyze the city’s traffic.

The Jordanian monarchy—a U.S. ally that made peace with Israel in 1994 and supports the moribund two-state solution—has long kept a tight rein on all media, public assembly and activism, including Palestinian activism (the country nearly slid into civil war, in the 1970s, when Palestinian militias tried to overthrow the king). But Jordan’s government must also take public sentiment into account, out of concern for its own stability. In a speech on October 21st, King Abdullah II condemned the killing of Israeli civilians as un-Islamic and spoke out against the siege and bombardment of Gaza, saying, “The message the Arab world is hearing is loud and clear: Palestinian lives matter less than Israeli ones. Our lives matter less than other lives. The application of international law is optional. And human rights have boundaries—they stop at borders, they stop at races, and they stop at religions.” Up the street from our house, a small group gathered recently to rename Paris Square (at whose corner stands the French cultural institute) as Gaza Square. They put up banners that read “Egalité Fraternité Liberté” in French, English and Arabic, a rebuke to declarations of Western universalist values that ring very hollow today.

Jordanian security forces dispersed crowds that tried to break into the (evacuated) Israeli embassy; they have not allowed them to gather near the American one, just as they have prevented protesters from going to the border with the West Bank. Keffiyehs and Palestinian flags are on display everywhere. People are boycotting McDonald’s, whose Israeli franchise has donated lunches to the IDF. They are calling for canceling Jordan’s 2014 gas deal with Israel. Everyone is doing fundraisers for Gaza, even though it’s not clear when or how the funds will be able to reach the people there. Craft fairs sell Palestinian embroidery; artists donate works to galleries.

In the spaces I frequent, the reigning emotions are a numb anger, dread, mourning, kinship and disbelief. Every cultural institution is organizing events that honor Palestinian culture and history—the context to the current violence, which seems so obvious here and so invisible elsewhere. At an evening of poetry readings for Palestine, a friend read from Mahmoud Darwish’s “Silence for the Sake of Gaza,” written in 1973:

Gaza is not the most polished of cities, or the largest. But she is equivalent to the history of a nation, because she is the most repulsive among us in the eyes of the enemy—the poorest, the most desperate, and the most ferocious. Because she is a nightmare. Because she is oranges that explode, children without a childhood, aged men without an old age, and women without desire. Because she is all that, she is the most beautiful among us, the purest, the richest, and most worthy of love.

At an art gallery down the street from my house, I watched a video by the artist Suha Shoman, entitled “Bayyaritna” (“Our Orchard”) that tells the story of the 151 acres her grandfather planted with orange, clementine, lemon and palm trees starting in 1929 in the Gaza area, before the existence of an isolated Gaza Strip. The farm kept growing, until it had 26,892 citrus trees. All of them were uprooted by Israeli forces over the course of six incursions into the farm between 2002 and 2008; they also destroyed the farm’s irrigation system, its beehives and its wells. Images of the farm as it once was are followed by one of the desert expanse it has become. The video’s refrain—“My grandfather loved his land,” “My father loved his land,” “She [the narrator’s mother] loved her land,” “We love our land”—grows more and more powerful.

At another gallery I attended a screening of the Palestinian film Curfew. Set in 1993, just as the Oslo Accords were starting to be negotiated, it portrays a family in Gaza who are stuck at home after the Israeli military announces a curfew. Through the eyes of a young boy named Radar (the name is never explained but one guesses it is because he seems to pick up on everything), we watch the family while away the hours, bicker, help their neighbors, count their provisions, shelter from tear gas and deal with power cuts, look on as a neighbor’s house is demolished by the IDF. Radar has been writing political graffiti with his friends; one of his older brothers is disgruntled and secretive, and there are clues that he is getting involved in some sort of militancy, but it is the other brother, who has given no indication of political activity and is only worried about his truck of rotting vegetables, who is blindfolded and taken away by Israeli soldiers. What is striking about the movie is the family’s mixture of care, resignation and practicality. The question that hangs over it all is: Who will Radar grow up to be (if he grows up at all)?

I’ve never visited Gaza. I have learned a lot of things about it in the last month. I learned that the Gaza Strip occupies a little over one percent of the land of Mandatory Palestine (1920-1948), and that, because the West Bank is so fragmented by settlements, that one percent is the largest contiguous space under Palestinian control anywhere. I learned that the word “gauze” comes from Gaza, which was once a textile center. I learned the first intifada broke out there. I learned how ancient Gaza City is: there is an eighth-century mosaic in the remains of the Church of St. Stephen an hour outside Amman that depicts the major cities of the Holy Land. A panel shows Gaza City’s gates and the Church of St. Porphyrius—originally built in the fifth century, among the oldest churches in the world and badly damaged during Israeli bombardment on October 19th. I learned the name of Ahmed Abu Artema, one of the activists who organized the 2018 March of Return—in which thousands of Palestinians marched peacefully to the Gaza fence and IDF soldiers opened fire on them, killing hundreds and maiming thousands—alongside the news, which he shared from his hospital bed, that his house had been bombed and he had lost his thirteen-year-old son.

The poetry reading made me think of a poem by the Palestinian poet Maya Abu Al-Hayyat, whom I met a few years ago in Jerusalem. Abu Al-Hayyat’s poems are full of the details of life under occupation; some are despairing, some are darkly funny, and some are tinged with a hope that bubbles up almost despite itself. They are often written from her point of view as a mother who is trying to look out for her kids and hold it together; this one strikes me that way, as being addressed by a mother to a child—perhaps a child in Gaza, burdened with the terrible task of proving they deserve to live.

They will fall in the end,
those who say you can’t.
It’ll be age or boredom that overtakes them,
or lack of imagination.
Sooner or later, all leaves fall to the ground.
You can be the last leaf.
You can convince the universe
that you pose no threat
to the tree’s life.